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A Chicago Teacher's Action Inspires Antitest Crusaders

Ohanian Comment: It occurs to me that since this website was not launched until a year after George Schmidt's courageous Act of Principle, many readers of this site don't know exactly what he did.

Substance cannot survive without the support of people who claim to believe in resistance.

We all owe George--big time.
Subscribe--and donate--now.


Page One Feature

By Robert Tomsho

CHICAGO -- When copies of the citywide Chicago Academic Standards
Examinations came into teacher George Schmidt's possession in 1999, he did
something unusual: He published them in his newspaper.

Although the tests, completed by students earlier that year, were still
being given on a no-stakes trial basis at that point, the act got Mr.
Schmidt denounced, fired and sued for $1 million. But as President Bush
pushes a sweeping proposal for U.S. schools to adopt achievement tests
nationwide, Mr. Schmidt was also transformed into a hero among students and
educators in the grass-roots antitest movement.

The admirers do not include Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Chicago
school district, whose lawsuit against Mr. Schmidt alleging copyright
violation is pending. Chicago, like most other school districts and states,
doesn't want the exams published because it would cost too much to produce
or buy all new questions each year. "His intent here was to sabotage," Mr.
Vallas says.

But the publication of the CASE tests in Substance, a newspaper edited by
Mr. Schmidt, exposed a number of test questions with sloppy wording or
seemingly accurate answers treated as incorrect among the multiple choices.

The world-studies test asked whether economic systems determine: "a) what
trade should take place, b) food and language, c) how much goods are worth,"
or "d) which people should be employed in certain jobs." The answer the
school district wanted was "c," but Mr. Schmidt asked Substance readers to
"imagine an economic system that didn't help determine trade" or "the kinds
of employment people can have."

Another question asked which event was the "spark that ignited" the Civil
War. The only answer acceptable was choice "d" -- "the attack on Fort
Sumter" in April 1861. But also valid, Mr. Schmidt argues, was choice "a" --
"the election of Abraham Lincoln" five months earlier, which prompted the
secession of seven states and the Confederacy's formation.

District officials stood by those items and others, saying the answers they
deemed correct were the best of the lot. Carole Perlman, director of student
assessment, says perfection was too much to expect from a test in the trial
stages, but adds that district officials were embarrassed by some of the
questions published. "It certainly wasn't something we were happy about,"
she says.

Chicago began moving toward rigorous application of standardized testing
after being denounced as the worst district in the country by William
Bennett when he was education secretary during the Reagan era. In 1995, the
state Legislature handed over control of the schools to Mayor Richard Daley,
who put his former budget director, Mr. Vallas, in charge. To make sure that
teachers followed its back-to-basics curriculum, the new administration
pumped $1 million into developing the CASE tests. Students in grades nine to
12 now take the CASE tests in 11 subjects and junior high students will
eventually take them as well.

'Sick of It All'

Former President Clinton praised Chicago as a model of school reform, but
within the city, testing became a tempestuous issue. Parents protested after
eighth-graders were held back or required to attend summer school because of
their scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a national test. Already
required to take a raft of other standardized exams, high-school students
launched demonstrations of their own as the CASE tests were prepared. "We
were pretty sick of it all," says Will Tanzman, now a Yale undergraduate,
who helped organize the protests.

It was the sort of tumult that Substance had thrived on since 1974 when it
was founded by substitute teachers pressing for better working conditions.
If the muckraking monthly's tenor could be shrill, it also made a mark with
a late-1980s series that helped lead to the conviction of an administrator
for molesting students.

Mr. Schmidt was teaching ninth-grade English at Bowen High School when he
became its editor in 1996. Under him, the paper regularly harpooned
administrators and promised confidentiality to school personnel who provided
story-generating tips. The paper also blasted Chicago Teachers Union leaders
for being too cozy with the administration. "It's just generally
antiestablishment, whether the establishment is the union or the board,"
says CTU spokeswoman Jackie Gallagher.

A burly 54-year-old with a push-broom mustache, Mr. Schmidt has never shied
away from an argument. During Chicago's Democratic National Convention of
1968, he and a few other protesters were arrested for criminal trespassing
after they waded into the midst of some bivouacked troops to talk. Later, he
worked on a quixotic campaign to organize a labor union for soldiers.

Though rated a superior teacher in job evaluations, he could be
unconventional in the classroom. In the fall of 1998, Mr. Schmidt and other
ninth-grade-English teachers were advised to cover Shakespeare's "Romeo and
Juliet" in preparation for a trial run of CASE the following January. Since
he didn't yet have to use CASE results to calculate class grades, Mr.
Schmidt advised his Bowen High students to go see the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli
movie based on the play. In his judgment, incoming freshmen had enough
adjustments to make in Bowen's tough culture, so he never taught Shakespeare
before the second semester.

The English exam that Mr. Schmidt administered was among the six CASE tests
that Substance later published -- 140 questions in all: two English tests,
two in Algebra, and one each in world studies and U.S. history. Mr. Schmidt,
whose basement serves as Substance's headquarters, says he received the
tests anonymously at his home in unmarked packages, one of which was left
dangling from his doorknob in a grocery bag. School-district officials, who
later investigated, say they aren't sure how he got them.

Stumbling Rhetoric

Some of the snafus he highlighted involved seemingly careless editing. Of
Martin Luther King Jr., one English question asked: "Which of the following
activities of King's actions directly led to his imprisonment in the
Birmingham Jail?"

But the phenomenon of multiple good answers was more serious. The history
test asked which of these items contributed to America's industrial growth:
population increase, government regulation, availability of natural
resources, or increased taxes. Population increase was deemed correct, but
Mr. Schmidt questioned why natural resources should be excluded, or even
government regulations "allowing the use of public lands for railroads and
the massive immigration to provide factory labor to exploit natural

Ms. Perlman, the school-district official in charge of developing the test,
concedes that that item "was possibly not a very good question" but adds
that bad questions sometimes slip through multiple screenings before being

Seeing the questions from various tests in Substance "woke everybody up,"
says Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban
Education, who was working with Chicago schools at the time. "The questions
were uneven and some of them were confusing."

Perplexing the Mayor

But city and school officials accused Mr. Schmidt of violating copyright
laws and district regulations while rendering hundreds of expensive
questions useless for future tests. "What kind of people would do this?"
Mayor Daley asked at one news conference.

The school district got a court order barring Mr. Schmidt from publishing
more exams and sought more than $1 million in damages from him for copyright
violations in a pending federal lawsuit filed in Chicago. Mr. Schmidt
contends that, as an editor, it was his First Amendment right to publish the

While the union hierarchy kept its distance from the matter, Mr. Schmidt was
removed from the classroom and assigned to a central-office job. There, for
a time, he designed refrigerator magnets that listed emergency numbers for
latchkey kids.

During a three-day disciplinary hearing at the school-district office early
last year, Mr. Schmidt flew in expert witnesses, one of whom likened the
CASE exams to a game of Trivial Pursuit. But the district succeeded in
limiting the matter to a simple question of whether Mr. Schmidt had violated
district regulations, and the presiding administrative-law judge agreed that
he had. In August, the school board finally dismissed Mr. Schmidt.

Seeking his job back, late last year he filed a still-pending lawsuit in
Chicago asking a state court to review the firing, claiming the board's move
was arbitrary and capricious. Chicago school officials say they stand by
their decision. "He's not going to teach in our system," Mr. Vallas says.

Chicago teachers and other observers say that recent editions of the CASE
tests are much improved. The district has brought in university professors
to review questions, recruited graduate students to take tests before they
are administered and hired a testing-research concern to evaluate its exams.
Mr. Vallas says the Substance case hasn't influenced such moves. "We have
always ignored Schmidt," he says.

'Big Inspiration'

But word of Mr. Schmidt's plight has spread wherever people have taken aim
at one-size-fits-all testing. A call for donations by one sympathetic
Champaign, Ill., teacher has helped to raise more than $80,000 to defray Mr.
Schmidt's legal expenses, which now total more than $110,000. "This has
really been a big inspiration to people around the country," says David
Stratman of New Democracy, a Boston advocacy group that is trying to
organize a teacher boycott of state exams in Massachusetts.

Jeffrey Orr says that what Mr. Schmidt did helped inspire him to boycott
this year's CASE exams at Chicago's Whitney Young High. "If you are not
shown your mistakes, then there is no way you can ever possibly learn from
them," says the 16-year-old sophomore.

Meanwhile, copies of the latest CASE tests continue to arrive at Mr.
Schmidt's house. He recently used one of them to help his own son figure out
how he had done on the district's algebra test. "I think every parent ought
to have that right," Mr. Schmidt says.

— Robert Thomsho
Wall Street Journal





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